Las Vegas Sun

July 4, 2022

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j. patrick coolican:

Who knew? My former coworker struggles with a gambling addiction

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J. Patrick Coolican

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When I arrived in Las Vegas I was surprised by the lack of media coverage of the social costs of gambling and problem gambling. To some extent, it is understandable -- there's a "been there, done that" instinct among reporters who have already told the story many times. And, of course, problem gambling is a story of little interest to casino executives, who media outlets rely upon as important sources of both advertising dollars and journalistic access.

Still, it made no sense: Problem gambling could be its own beat here, like mine safety in West Virginia or brain injuries among NFL or war vets.

Sam Skolnik arrived at the Las Vegas Sun in 2006 with the same bafflement about the lack of comprehensive coverage of problem gambling. Today, he corrects that deficiency with his book on the subject, "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction," a cogent overview of the rapid rise of legalized gambling and its consequences.

During his three-plus years at the Sun, Skolnik covered the courthouse and Las Vegas City Hall, whereas I've always worked out of our main newsroom, so we had almost no interaction. I rarely if ever saw him socially, and now I have an inkling why: On the first page of "High Stakes," Skolnik acknowledges struggling with a gambling addiction since 2001, a poker habit that never had him stealing or evicted, but did leave him in hock to payday lenders and at times living on a diet of "store-brand mac and cheese, ramen noodles, saltines and seltzer water." I knew he played poker, but had no earthly idea to this extent.

And in this revelation we are compelled to stop and realize that our community is brimming with this kind of poverty -- and worse -- because of gambling. (But on the other hand, brimming with affluence because of gambling, too.)

I'm a junky for trashy addiction memoirs -- most recently, "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man" -- so I would have loved to read some depraved account of a former colleague's gambling problem. But Skolnik isn't Dostoeyevsky -- he's not that kind of writer and insofar as I know him, he's always struck me as an eminently decent person without the immense self possession required of addiction memoir writing. He hasn't set out to write "The Gambler."

He's actually a gumshoe reporter who happens to have an intimate, first-hand understanding of the gambling universe, aided not only by his poker games, but also by a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he studied the issue of problem gambling closely.

This book doesn't quite have the devastating power of something like "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser's indictment of the fast food industry. Skolnik didn't have the same time or resources -- or insider sources -- at his disposal.

Still, this is good start, and I hope the book draws attention to an issue that is at once omnipresent but also strangely hidden here in Las Vegas. The suicides and murder-suicides, the property crime, the child neglect -- we often assume these are tied to problem gambling (and/or other addictions our city aids and abets), but we rarely tie the disparate pieces together into the obvious whole.

The book has chapters on the explosion of gambling in other states, marketing to Asian and Asian-American gamblers, the science of gambling addiction and treatment and the role the industry has played -- and not played -- in mitigating the effects of problem gambling. I'll leave other analysts with more expertise to evaluate those sections, interesting as they are.

But in a chapter I know a bit more about and of particular interest to Las Vegas readers, Skolnik rips off the sparkly silicone sheen of glamour that coats the Strip and shows the whole skein of pathologies we live with here.

With our 100,000 or so problem or pathological gamblers, our 14 Gamblers Anonymous meetings per day and our 14,000 video poker and slot machines, "This gambling mecca has become the nation's problem gambling capital. In the last several decades, gambling has been absorbed into every facet of life in Las Vegas, and the consequences have been dire," Skolnik writes.

Skolnik argues that as other states consider the seductive allure of casino gambling -- politicians love the jobs and the revenue that frees them from having to raise taxes or cut spending -- they better look at Nevada and consider the consequence of gambling culture.

Although gambling can't be blamed for all our woes, let's admit where we are: "Las Vegas and Nevada boast higher rates of crime, bankruptcy filings, home foreclosures, divorces, and suicides than anywhere else in the country." Not sure "boasts" is the appropriate word.

The point here isn't to get all puritanical and pretend we're going to be something other than what we are -- a libertine's delight. Rather, the point is to recognize human weakness and be more honest as a community about the impact of our most important industry, and deal with the impact accordingly, which is to say, far more aggressively.

Coolican will interview Skolnik on his radio show, "Neon Eden," Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. on KUNV, FM 91.5. Follow Patrick on Twitter @jpcoolican.

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